The Business Insider report emphasized that a major topic of interest both during and after those negotiations was whether Saudi Arabia would be held to the terms of a “123 Agreement,” in which the party receiving American nuclear technology or no how commits to using them only for peaceful purposes while eschewing all domestic enrichment of nuclear material. This in turn gave rise to renewed discussion of the perceived flaws in the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, derided by US President Donald Trump as the “worst deal ever.”
Under the terms of the deal, Iran agreed to dismantle a portion of its nuclear enrichment infrastructure but also kept thousands of centrifuges in operation, allowing for the continuation of low levels of uranium enrichment. In recent months, as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action has faced escalating threats of cancelation by the White House, Iranian officials have boasted that they are capable of resuming full-scale enrichment within 48 hours and even boosting it to much higher levels than prior to the agreement.
This feature of the nuclear deal has raised serious doubts about Saudi Arabia’s willingness to abide by absolute limits on enrichment at a time when the nation is apparently committed to keeping pace with its main regional rival in all major areas. That commitment is arguably on display in the developing Saudi nuclear policy, which threatens to encompass not only energy generation but also nuclear weapons capability.
In an interview with the CBS News program 60 Minutes that will air on Sunday, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman declared, “Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.” After quoting this excerpt from the interview, Reuters noted that the nation’s newly adopted atomic energy policy does include the acceptance of limits defined by international treaties, but Salman’s warning underscores the likelihood of a nuclear arms race beginning if those limits are violated on one side of the regional rivalry.
Salman also highlighted the severity of that rivalry, comparing Iran’s expansionist ambitions to those of Nazi Germany, with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in the place of Adolph Hitler. Voice of America quoted the prospective Saudi king as saying, “Many countries around the world and in Europe did not realize how dangerous Hitler was until what happened, happened. I don’t want to see the same events happening in the Middle East.”
Such comments are indicative of the war of words between the two regional powers, which has been escalating in recent months and years. Despite that escalation, there have been flashes of cooperation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, both of which are member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. OPEC, along with non-member state Russia, agreed in late 2016 to begin reducing oil output in an effort to buttress falling prices. But that agreement has always appeared fragile, ever since the Saudis begrudgingly conceded to Iranian demands that Iranian exports be exempted as the nation worked to restore its damaged oil economy following the lifting of economic sanctions under the JCPOA.
Another Reuters report on Thursday pointed out that Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh had expressed persistent confidence in the OPEC agreement, specifically asserting that it could be expected to survive through the end of the year. However, Iran’s adversaries in OPEC may be granted more wiggle room in the wake of the firing of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who is set to be replaced by current CIA director and noted Iran hawk Mike Pompeo. The incoming Secretary of State has promised to curtail Iran’s investment environment, and oil prices according edged upward in recognition of the possibility that Iranian exports might be cut off by the renewal of US led sanctions at some point in the near future.
But although oil competition is certainly a component of the Iranian-Saudi rivalry, its recent escalation has more to do with military, political, and cultural influence throughout the region, and this competition has expressed itself through their backing of opposing sides in a number of regional conflicts, especially the civil war in Yemen, a southern neighbor of the Saudi kingdom.
On Wednesday, Al Monitor published an analysis of the latest developments in that conflict, where Saudi Arabia is leading a coalition responsible for airstrikes against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels who still maintain their hold on the capital of Sanaa. The article described the proxy war as a lose-lose situation for Iran and Saudi Arabia, but also as one that is unlikely to come to a conclusion any time soon.
“Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman regards the Yemeni war as his own, and any success thus as his signature,” Al Monitor declared, adding that “to the Iranians, the more the Saudis are stuck in the quagmire, the more Prince Mohammed will be vulnerable, and this will have a bigger implication on the Saudi role in the region.”
It might also be said that Tehran views the worsening humanitarian crisis as an opportunity to distract attention away from recent and ongoing human rights violations in Syria, where the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has helped Bashar al-Assad to hold onto power in the wake of a politically diverse uprising against his dictatorship.
Illustrating this phenomenon, EA Worldview published a report on Monday regarding public remarks that had been made about Yemen by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, during a meeting with Red Cross President Peter Mauer. Zarif condemned the Saudi-led coalition for its bombing campaign, but said nothing of the similar, years-long campaign against Syrian rebels by the Russian military, which has frequently supported Iranian operations on the ground.
Separately, Iran’s English-language propaganda network Press TV tried to differentiate the two situations by asserting that Iranian and Russian forces were operating in Syria at the request of that country’s government, as part of a fight against “terrorists”. But this disregards the fact that Saudi Arabia is allied with the recognized government of Yemen, in opposition to a single Shiite paramilitary group that is widely regarded as a terrorist organization, in contrast to the apparently moderate Syrian opposition groups that received backing from the West before the tide of the Syrian Civil War turned in Assad’s favor.
EA Worldview also credited Iranian media with disseminating propaganda and disinformation on Syria, some of which originated in Tehran and some of which originated with the Assad regime or with Russia. Examples of the latter include smear campaigns against White Helmet rescue workers and claims that chemical weapons had been found in rebel-held areas in spite of widespread reports in the international press that such weapons had been deployed repeatedly by the Assad regime.
Iran’s efforts to parrot Russian propaganda highlight the persistent alliance between those two countries. Their cooperative relations have economic as well as political and military dimensions, and the Washington Post reported on Wednesday that a Russian-Iranian consortium had just entered into a 740 million dollar agreement to develop two Iranian oil fields – the second energy contract of its kinds since the implementation of the JCPOA.
On the other hand, Russia’s independent economic activities have reportedly stoked resentment in Iranian state media, potentially rekindling longstanding speculation that the Russian-Iranian alliance could be weakened or broken by outside forces. According to Al Monitor, Moscow has been pursuing reconstruction and investment agreements with Damascus which bypass Tehran, and some Iranian commentators have responded with anger over the threat that this poses to prospects for recouping losses associated with Iran’s involvement in the conflict.
Al Monitor quoted Yahya Rahim Safavi, a senior military advisor to Supreme Leader Khamenei, as saying, “The Islamic Republic must be reimbursed for the price it has paid in Syria.”
dditionally, an editorial in one Iranian daily newspaper specifically named Bashar al-Assad in declaring that the Islamic Republic should not allow any person to limit Iran’s involvement in Syrian reconstruction.”
In addition to encouraging doubts about Iran’s relationship with Russia, such commentary also threatens to undermine the Iranian propaganda efforts aimed at Saudi Arabia. After all, such statements contradict those made by the Iranian Foreign Minister and others regarding the supposed differences between Iranian and Saudi influence and intervention in the broader Middle East. If a break between Iran and Russia leads Tehran to disregard the preferences of the Assad regime, it will be virtually impossible for the Iranians to maintain their claim that their presence in neighboring countries is more welcome than that of regional and Western adversaries.